A shortage of labor is forcing Arkansas farmers to change the way they do business--from the crops they grow to the equipment they purchase.

Mississippi County Extension Agent Roger Bowman said it is hard for farmers as employers to compete against high-paying jobs at the county's steel mills.

The lack of farm labor is reshaping the fields in a county where cotton was king last year.

"Some are going from cotton to soybeans. There is less work involved, they can have other jobs. They don't have to be there everyday like you do with cotton," Bowman said.

Availability of farm labor also can determine the size of a farming operation.

"Farm labor limits the size of farms. You either farm 2,000 or 3,000 acres, or you have to go to 8,000 acres to afford the equipment. There are very few acreages in-between," he said.

The shortage of hands is prompting equipment makers and buyers to think big.

"Lack of labor is causing row crop producers to look hard at 12-row equipment instead of eight-row, just as many farmers moved from six-row to eight-row, in an effort to cover more ground or the same ground with fewer people," said Don Plunkett, who coordinates the cotton verification program for the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas, "We have seen the industry gear up for the larger equipment widths by also producing bigger, more powerful tractors.

"We have moved away from two-row pickers to four-row pickers and now there are six-row pickers available, if the grower can afford it," he said. "I haven't seen them, but reports are there are some 18-row implements being used with the six-row pickers."

There also are changes in irrigation routines.

"We have seen a move away from irrigation crews," Plunkett said. "Part of this is because we started using so much polytubing in the late 1980s and beyond. This replaced the aluminum gated pipe or plastic gated pipe and allowed more acres to come under irrigation, because it can be laid out faster and easier than the hard pipe."

Extension Irrigation Specialist Phil Tacker said the lack of labor makes it difficult to water the crop in a timely fashion. when hands are in short supply, sometimes growers rely on two types of "convenience watering." In one scenario, a grower "waters based on when he can get to it, rather than when the crop needs it, because of other demands on his available labor," Tacker said.

In the second case, follow-up furrow irrigations based on where the outlets are in the irrigation tubing, rather than taking more time and labor to go to the part of the field where irrigation is more likely to be needed first.

In northeast Arkansas, "We are seeing lots of center pivot irrigation systems going in this winter," Bowman said. The center pivots require fewer people to run.

"The good news might be that because of labor concerns, some producers are gearing up for more conservation tillage programs than before," Plunkett said. "Arkansas has a very low number of acres devoted to no-till production and-or conservation tillage acres."

Tacker and other Extension personnel are teaching techniques to help growers to make the most of the available labor, such as border irrigation, use of the irrigation scheduler program and multiple inlet rice irrigation.

"Hopefully, we will continue to get more growers plugged in to these different irrigation management tools, so they can better manage what they have," he said.

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